Janet did not know which way to move or what to do. ‘God,’ she prayed, ‘help me! Please, please help me!’ She put out a hand and stirred among the grapefruit for some clue which might indicate her next move. One grapefruit toppled, then another, then the whole pile avalanched onto the floor. Janet sat among them, talking to the shadow … She clenched one hand around a grapefruit and drummed it on the ground.
Janet Saunders, a sensible, respectable, middle-aged wife and mother is in the supermarket experiencing some kind of breakdown, the exact nature of which is never explained. But the cause, and the lack of a definitive diagnosis don’t matter. What is important in Mary Hocking’s novel An Irrelevant Woman is Janet’s descent into illness, and the way she and her family cope with the situation. And if that sounds grim, it really isn’t. Much of it is very humorous, and I thought the exploration of mental illness was sensitively handled, as are the relationships between the various characters.
Janet’s illness progresses from almost imperceptible beginnings, although when we first meet her there are signs that all is not well:
A look of uncertainty came over her face which, for no apparent reason, changed rapidly to one of dismay. And worse. In this unguarded moment the woman’s face betrayed the naked terror which might be occasioned by coming without warning, in a nameless place, to the edge of a precipice; or by being confronted in one’s own household with a forgotten, long-locked door behind which may lie ultimate chaos, a rotting human corpse, or an equally defunct mouse. The woman opened the oven door and peered inside. Whatever she saw did little to reassure her and after a moment, during which she made no attempt to touch, or indeed to examine, anything, she closed the door and remained crouched forward, dark head bent.
There are small changes at first; individually they could be laughed off, but taken altogether they give cause for concern. Janet can’t remember things, she’s tired and quiet, but when she does speak she is spikier than usual. When the family arrive for Sunday lunch she forgets to roast the potatoes. And one evening she sits in the garden late at night, refusing to go inside even though thunder is rolling in the distance and it is growing cold and dark.
As the weeks go by her behaviour becomes more bizarre. She has her face painted at a fair, and then there is that incident in the local supermarket. She is, presumably, suffering from a form of depression. Her world loses its colour and sparkle and is reduced to a charcoal sketch. Trying to explain how she feels tells one of her sons:
It’s the darkness. It starts on top of my head and works its way right down through me. It’s worst of all when it gets to my stomach.
Janet isn’t herself – she isn’t the self her family know and love. She is, as one of her children says, slipping. Slipping away from her accustomed role as mother and wife, slipping away from her own identity.
Now in her fifties. Janet doesn’t work. Her talents are for caring and nurturing making life as easy as possible for her husband Murdoch (an acclaimed writer whose ‘gift’ fails to win commercial success) and their four children, Stephanie, Hugh, Malcolm and Katrina, who have all grown up and left home.
It would be easy to see her as a victim of ‘empty nest syndrome’ but there is more to it than that. She has let go of her children, and can’t understand why they won’t let go of her. She asks: “Why do they talk about me, criticising analysing, yet still demanding the old comforts be available whenever they need them?” She feels her skills are no longer valued, her children want to refashion her, and her husband behaves as though nothing has changed. She sees herself as a series of ‘nots’, passive, accepting and unmotivated - an irrelevant woman.
Murdoch doesn’t want her to be ‘messed about with’, and a somewhat unorthodox psychiatrist recommends that Janet‘s illness should be left to run its course, so there are no drugs, and no proper counselling sessions, and she is left to heal herself which, amazingly, she does. I have to admit I found her miraculous overnight cure utterly unbelievable, but this is a novel, and anything is possible.
The shift in the dynamics of the couple’s relationship was interesting. Murdoch, facing his own mid-life crisis as his precious gift for writing disappears, relishes the transformation from ‘cared for’ to carer. In the end I think Janet’s illness changes him more than her. Their final choice about the direction their life will take doesn’t really open up new opportunities for her – it merely enables her to continue using the skills she has, building on her existing role, albeit in a different environment, but it is what she wants. And her illness strengthens the bond between them: they are no longer him and her, following the separate roles. They are a couple, working together, enjoying each other’s company, tackling problems as they arise.
And life also changes for the children, who seem somehow to be adrift in the world outside home, and have always returned, expecting to find it the same, enabling them to gather strength to face the trials of life, but now they must find their own way. I worried about the children. Have they been over-protected so they cannot cope with life – or not protected enough from living in the shadow of their ‘gifted’ father?
There are questions here about the relationship between children and parents, husband and wife, family and friends, and about the roles adopted by people, the way they see themselves, and the way others perceive them. I viewed Janet as a slightly old-fashioned figure, more like a woman from the 1950s than the late-1980s setting of the novel. Then she has this conversation with her elder daughter, and it turned everything upside down.
Men have always been jealous that it is the woman who bears the child. She is the fruitful one – they call it passivity. That is why I never envied Murdoch his gift. Why I always wanted him to have every opportunity to exercise his creativity. Nothing compared to mine, but some recompense. I was so sorry for him shut up all day over dry old bits of paper.
Stephanie said shakily, ‘I think you are a little mad.’
‘Am I?’ She registered Stephanie now. ‘I brought you into the world. Don’t you think you are of more value than your father’s book?’
Hocking, who is very much a forgotten novelist, has been compared to Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor, and I can see why. She is not quite in the same league perhaps, but there is the same precision in her writing - lovely well balanced, flowing sentences, with never a word out of place. And, like them, she never quite lets us get fully into minds of her characters. She remains slightly detached, an observer, showing them at a particular moment in time with no judgments, no back stories, and no explanations about their behaviour.
I’d never heard of Mary Hocking until Alison at Heavenali wrote about her, and I find it hard to understand how such a good and popular writer can have fallen out of favour and been forgotten in such a short period of time.
Anyway, Alison has been running a Mary Hocking Week over at her blog, and I meant to join in and post this early in the week, as well as another piece on the Fairley family trilogy, but I haven’t quite finished that, although I’m enjoying it just as much. So,, as usual, I’m a little late, but the Week ends today, so I’m OK to post my thoughts on An Irrelvant Woman.